Closed meetings continue on Southwest light rail; Met Council hires firm to run public hearings

Closed-door meetings about the Southwest light rail project route continue, as Gov. Mark Dayton met with mayors, county commissioners and legislators Monday about freight rail and environmental studies currently underway and upcoming public hearings.

Since October, Dayton has been holding meetings about the controversial options of routing light rail through the scenic Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis alongside freight rail, or rerouting the freight through St. Louis Park.

Dayton postponed a long-awaited Metropolitan Council vote on the route, and called the closed-door meetings to buy time to explore options other than routing the light rail in a shallow tunnel alongside freight --- an option recommended by a Met Council advisory board earlier this year --- and to get the cities and other officials on board with the project’s route.

The option of leaving freight rail in Kenilworth has not been ruled out and is still a potential option, said Matt Swenson, Dayton’s spokesman. “No decisions have been made,” Swenson said. “If for whatever reason it stays as the same route, or it goes to a different route, whatever is decided in the end, we’re confident that there’s been a thorough, constructive conversation on the issue and every option will have been exhausted and explored.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of heat from the public about the route options on the table and that the Met Council, the agency overseeing the project, was not hearing public input, the council hired a consulting firm two weeks ago to run upcoming public meetings about the draft of studies underway. The January meetings will gather public input on studies exploring freight re-route options and the environmental impact of running light rail through Kenilworth.

The firm, Grassroots Solutions, will collect $22,000 from the council to “provide facilitation, helping us structure those conversations so they’re the most positive and productive for people who attend,” said Met Council spokesperson Meredith Salsbery. They’ll help walk through the drafts of the studies with the public, and gather feedback, she said.

“This is a really critical point in the project with these additional studies, and it’s important that we do it really well the first time,” Salsbery said. She added that having the firm run the meeting allows council staff and elected officials “to really sit and listen, as opposed to also having to facilitate the meeting.”

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